A video produced by Code.org—a nonprofit foundation dedicated to increasing computer literacy—lamenting a lack of high school programming courses has sparked interest and controversy among students and professors, with some expressing concern that computer science (CS) has attained too prominent a role at Stanford.
The video, which describes coding as a “superpower,” has been viewed over 10 million times since it was uploaded in February. It features Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, musician Will.i.am and basketball player Chris Bosh—among other prominent individuals—speaking about their experiences with coding.
Associate Professor of Computer Science Mehran Sahami ’92 M.S.’93 Ph.D.’99, who serves on the Code.org advisory board, said that the video was created to increase awareness of the need for computer-literate workers as well as to demonstrate the empowering nature of programming skills for the broad range of individuals featured.
“The whole message there is that the ability to program or understand principles from computing is something that is really needed on a broad basis,” Sahami said. “In the same way that we think about reading, writing and arithmetic being broadly applicable skills, we’ve moved to an age where computing is now becoming a broadly applicable skill.”
Computer science’s ascent at Stanford
Even as Code.org calls for greater investment in programming education, computer science has continued to advance rapidly on the Farm. It recently became the most popular major at Stanford, with over 220 students declaring during the 2011-12 academic year and—by Sahami’s estimation—more than 90 percent of students taking at least one computer science class while at Stanford.
Enrollment in the CS106A: Programming Methodology introductory course has also continued to rise, from 964 students in the 2009-10 academic year to 1,523 students last year. According to Claire Stager, manager of educational affairs in the department of computer science, 1,187 students have enrolled in CS106A this year through autumn and winter quarter, putting the course on the path to another record enrollment total.
“The CS 106 courses are made to be accessible to students across a range of majors, not just computer scientists and not just engineers,” Sahami said. “We strongly believe that it is good for everyone to have some computing skills, and so we try to make our classes accessible to everyone.”
Sahami attributed the recent rise in student interest in computer science to a variety of different factors, including the revision of the computer science curriculum to create 10 different tracks, the increasing value of programming skills on the job market, and a change in public perception about coding.
Alexander Atallah ’14, a computer science major and an officer in the Stanford chapter of the Association for Computer Machinery (ACM), echoed Sahami’s sentiments. As an incoming freshman, Atallah had planned to major in economics but changed his mind after realizing that computer science aligned with his interests and after discovering the resources available for computer science majors at Stanford.
“It’s pretty easy to get involved with things in CS. It’s just everywhere,” he said. “It’s not something that I personally want to do forever—I can’t see myself sitting down in front of a computer for the rest of my life—but it’s a way for me to penetrate an industry that I’m interested in.”
Controversy over computer science’s prominence
With the recent popularization of coding through the Code.org video and movies like The Social Network, some critics have claimed that the glamorization of computer science has resulted in many students pursuing the subject for the wrong reasons.
Atallah, who described the Code.org video as “sensationalist, to some extent,” said that he believes that the presence of celebrities in the video may have an unintended effect.
“It was just trying to get the message out through people that most viewers would recognize. The fact that it did that made coding look a lot more glamorous,” Atallah said. “The reality is that a lot of people just become programming monkeys.”
Ayush Sood ’14, a computer science major and president of ACM at Stanford, agreed that the video was “overglamorous.” According to Sood, many computer science students serious about the subject itself and less interested in financial success were upset with the video’s portrayal of computer science as a means to an end.
“All the stuff that they showed in the video is true, but to get to that level where you are working for Facebook or you are working for Dropbox or you are working for Airbnb, you really have to have a passion,” he said. “Sure, it’s a glamorous way to get rich, but there is a lot of failure in there, too.”
While Sahami said that he would recommend that Stanford establish a computer science requirement for all students, Sood claimed that too many students enroll in computer science courses with many “just there to finish the program.”
“I think everyone should have the exposure to CS and have that experience, but a lot of people end up taking it because there is this mentality that everyone has to take it, which I think is not true,” he said. “Just because everyone is doing it doesn’t mean it’s a reason to take it.”
By contrast, Professor of Classics Richard Martin said that he believes that learning languages like Greek and Latin “does more for you” than coding, and that coding and the humanities are “on entirely different levels.”
“I think the real difference is that when you study humanities, you are doing something for yourself beyond the material and beyond the immediate,” he said. “It’s not a head-to-head contest because the humanities [are] so much more necessary than coding.”
While Martin said that the popularity of computer science at Stanford is understandable, given the University’s history and location in Silicon Valley, he described a detrimental effect on the composition of undergraduate applicants, of which only 10 to 12 percent express an interest in the humanities.
“The real danger these days is that students don’t apply to Stanford if they are interested in hardcore humanities subjects. They think Stanford is simply a technical university,” he said. “I’m happy to let computer science have all the buildings and money they want, as long as they don’t take anything away from the humanities.”
After watching the Code.org video, Martin expressed confusion as to why the video was created considering computer science’s ongoing popularity.
“ I guess it’s driven by the market—they want a lot of human tools to basically code for them to help them make money, to be the most cynical about it,” he said. “My problem with it is that it sounds like this magic ticket to a job [and] a great life, and nobody seems to talk about the intellectual value of coding in and of itself.”
Martin also took issue with a quote from President John Hennessy on the Code.org website, in which Hennessy encourages all students to learn how to code.
“I would like to see him and his peers in the administration come out and say how important it is for everybody to do humanities, let alone Greek and Latin, just to kind of right the boat [and] to make it even-keeled again,” Martin said.
Martin advocated making a similar promotional video featuring speakers attesting to the power of the humanities as a means of reducing the disparity between the humanities and computer science at Stanford.
“What you’re not going to convince people [of] is that, if they [study] humanities, they will get a cool job where they can play ping pong in the middle of the day and have massages, which the [Code.org] video plays up as well.”